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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » WWI Centennial Commemoration Collection (The Big Parade, Wings, The Dawn Patrol-1938, Sergeant York)
WWI Centennial Commemoration Collection (The Big Parade, Wings, The Dawn Patrol-1938, Sergeant York)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // July 22, 2014
List Price: $29.93 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted October 29, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
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Highly Recommended
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Timely, sturdy re-packaging of four classic war movies. Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures have jointly released World War I: Centennial Commemorative Collection, a five-disc, four movie gathering of iconic titles The Big Parade, from 1925, Wings, from 1927, the remake of The Dawn Patrol, from 1938, and Sergeant York, from 1941. With Europe commemorating the 100 years anniversary of the start of WWI this past summer, this re-release of four of the greatest WWI movies ever made (well...three of the greatest) is a perfect fit for autumn DVD viewing. Nothing new here in terms of transfers and extras from previous releases, but for first-timers, these transfers are terrific (the restored The Big Parade and Wings look remarkable), while the extras--including commentary tracks, making-of featurettes, trailers, and alternate musical scores--are copious. Let's look very briefly at each movie.

THE BIG PARADE

While the First World War in Europe rages on, America bustles in peacetime naivete. Slim (Karl Dane), a Big Apple high-rise riveter, Bull (Tom O'Brien), a bartender down in the Bowery, and James Apperson (John Gilbert), a wealthy, indolent son of a mill owner, represent a broad cross-section of the country's men who will eventually answer the call to arms when the conflict beckons America. Jim, adored by his mother (Claire McDowell) and sneered at by his industrious, imperious father (Hobart Bosworth), initially has absolutely no intention of joining up, but when his girl, Justyn (Claire Adams), tells him how handsome he'd be in a uniform, and when Jim's friends beckon him to join them in an enlistment drive, Jim spontaneously joins up...to the horror of his mother and the booming pleasure of his now-proud father. After a brief training period, where Jim bonds with Bull and Slim, their unit is assigned to a small village in France, behind the lines, where Jim meets Melisande (Renee Adoree), a beautiful French girl who speaks no English. The two fall in love, but their idyll is brief; the unit is called up to the front lines. There, Jim and his buddies will face the horrors of modern mechanized warfare, as men are mowed down like ten pins.

I probably haven't seen director King Vidor's The Big Parade since my "Silent Film" class in "film school" (yeech), but I remember the experience vividly because it was projected on a massive screen--the way this movie really needs to be seen--and because of the vivid soundtrack, which I'm fairly certain was the old William Axt score. Now, this DVD transfer of the restored WWI classic is miles above that old, scratched-up, contrasty 35mm print I watched decades ago (the level of image clarity here is remarkable). However, the "new" score by Carl Davis (from 1988, and which I understand references some refrains from Axt's score) almost had me reaching for the mute button during the first third of the movie. Instead of watching The Big Parade, I felt like I was listening to a Carl Davis concert, weakly illustrated by King Vidor's pictures. Overblown and overshadowing the images, while mickey-mousing every emotion, the music is hammered into us, as if Davis didn't trust Vidor's frames to do their job. Once the storyline switches to the middle and end comedy romance and war sections, Davis' far more subdued, background score works quite well, complimenting Vidor rather than competing with and ultimately vanquishing him.

As for the movie itself, what I find most remarkable about it is Vidor's willingness to languidly switch gears between an initial family drama (lazy, rudderless son Gilbert's contempt for his martinet father and go-along brother, magnified by his passivity in joining the war effort) and an extended "service comedy" romance (Gilbert's bonding with his two war buddies prior to his funny, touching love scenes with Adoree), before the last third of this long movie switches to a brutal, complicated look at front-line warfare. I know Vidor made conflicting statements about The Big Parade throughout his career, wondering if it was "anti-war" enough before finally embracing it as one of his masterworks. Certainly that questionable title card during the enlistment drive sequence, deriding patriotism as a phony virtue that gullible people ignore until the drums start beating, seems to indicate where the movie's head is at. And yet...war brings to indolent, uncommitted, directionless Gilbert--for the first time--primal emotions he clearly wasn't experiencing in peacetime America: blood-brother camaraderie with his two Army buddies, and a passionate love for Adoree that spans two continents and the loss of a leg. He has a girl back home who supposedly loves him (although she seems more interested in how he'll look in a uniform rather than if he'll get killed), but he finds emotional desire with Adoree, a woman so in love with him that she's willing to be dragged along by the truck that's taking him away to the front (while his girl back home is cozying up to his brother). Once in battle, hearing the death throes of his pal, he realizes he wants to fight, to avenge, rather than rot (as he was doing at home), and yet when he's in a foxhole with a German soldier, he struggles with his own brutality, giving the dying man a cigarette while repeatedly roughing up the boy's face and yanking the soldier's head around as the rage keeps coming back (I wonder if that's why they cut the shot of Gilbert supposedly putting a cigarette out on the soldier's face to see if he was really dead). Gilbert, whom we first see lying prone in a barber chair, lazily getting a shave from a servant, may have joined up for military service on a whim, but his duty, no matter how horrible, finally breathes messy, conflicted life into him. Vidor's meticulous mise-en-scene (the repeated motif of featuring Gilbert's soon-to-gone leg), his literally metronomic editing scheme (the famous troop advance on Belleau Wood sequence, timed to a metronome), and his willingness to let Gilbert--one of the greatest "reactors" in movie history, not just the silents--create a two-dimensional character who becomes fully dimensional by the end of the picture, mark The Big Parade as one not just one of the silents' best movies, but one of the best war movies of any period.


WINGS

A small town in America, 1917. All-American boy Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) dreams of speed and flight as he strips down his old Ford and turns it into the "Shooting Star," the moniker courtesy of his love-sick neighbor, Mary Preston (Clara Bow). Jack is oblivious to Mary's feelings, just as he can't see that the object of his affection, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), is really in love with wealthy, sober David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). When America is finally drawn into the First World War, Jack and David answer the call. Calling on Sylvia to say goodbye, Jack mistakes a locket with Sylvia's picture--and an inscription of love to David--as intended for him. Sylvia doesn't have the heart to take back this good-luck charm, and tells David he knows that she really loves him. David says goodbye to his upright, proper parents (Henry B. Walthall, Julia Swayne Gordon), both of whom almost break down when David takes along a tiny teddy bear--a toy from his infancy--as his own good-luck piece. Once David and Jack are through with basic training--where they continue their rivalry--the fliers are stationed in France (where they're eventually decorated for bravery), and where Mary has also gone, as an ambulance driver in the Women's Motor Corps. On furlough in Paris, Mary rescues a drunken Jack from a "dancer" at the Folies Bergere; taking Jack to his room, MPs discover the two (with Mary innocently in a state of undress), and she's fired from the Corps. On the eve of the "big push" at the battle of Saint-Mihiel, the two young pilots fight over Sylvia's locket, with David not letting Jack see the truth behind Sylvia's picture, before they take to the air...without their good-luck charms. By the end of the battle, one flyer will be shot down, making his way behind enemy lines to his unit, while the other flyer seeks vengeance against the bosch.

Far more "commercial" in impact than the artier, ultimately far more somber The Big Parade, the energetic, ballsy Wings doesn't make any bones about how it feelings toward war. There's no ambivalence in that highly romantic quote that opens the picture: "To those young warriors of the sky, whose wings are folded about them forever, this picture is reverently dedicated." Add in a quote from Charles Lindbergh, the "Lone Eagle," and you can pretty much forget the so-called seriousness of its melodramatic stabs at war-related tragedy. War, in Wings, is spectacle on a grand scale, designed to sell movie tickets first and last. With Clara Bow inserted by Paramount to guarantee box office for this specifically designed "road show" presentation, and with a reported budget of over $2 million dollars (insane in 1927...and that doesn't count the untold millions in assistance granted gratis by the U.S. Army, including planes, thousands of men, and acres and acres of land used for the full-sized sets), Wings is a Hollywood product with the payoff of putting the audience right in the cockpit of a Thomas-Morse MB-3 (instead of a historically correct SPAD) as it loops and spins through vertiginous rolls in the clouds. Written by Julian Johnson, Hope Loring, and Louis D. Lighton, from a story/screenplay by John Monk Saunders, Wings was directed by relative newcomer (to anything this big) William A. Wellman, who proceeded to show off in the best Hollywood sense. With only a string of B Westerns to his name and his own real-life WWI experiences in the Lafayette Flying Corps as his only calling card in getting the Wings assignment, Wellman had something to prove to the Paramount suits who eventually were itching to fire him, unlike the vaunted, unchallenged position King Vidor enjoyed when making The Big Parade (production on location in Texas was a lengthy nightmare of photographic trial-and-error for Wellman and crew in getting the aerial footage right, along with weather delays and equipment backlogs).

So deliberately-planned "art" here takes a backseat to meticulously-created "spectacle"...with "art" resulting, anyway (Wellman's intricately choreographed, thrillingly-manufactured battle of Saint-Mihiel, is just as valid an artistic statement--regardless of any message...or lack thereof--as was Vidor's horrific drumbeat Belleau Wood sequence). Many critics, then and now, dismiss the actual storyline (I've always liked the unabashed, un-ironic sentimentality on display here--it's as honest in its aims to choke up the audience as the aerial sequences are designed to exhilarate), while I've never cared for the Paris furlough sequence (it goes on far too long as an excuse to beef up delicious Bow's part...while Rogers, with those stupid cartoon bubbles, is grating "playing" drunk). And don't even get me started on El Brendel (jesus is he annoying). But everyone seems to agree that the aerial sequences still hold up as models of hair-raising Hollywood stuntwork (that's really Arlen and Rogers flying in those crazy, scary shots--they even operated the remote cameras while acting in the cockpits), while Wellman's overall orchestration of the aerial and ground battle footage is masterful. Wings may make noises about the barbarism of war (the still graphic shot of the pilot clawing at his throat before he expels a mouthful of blood), or war's futility (David's mother blaming the war, not Jack, for her son's death), but the final effect on the viewer is perverse, vicarious enjoyment, both in its furious action and in the emotional tragedy (that pilot's death is "cool" in action movie terms, while we take proxy pleasure in the melodramatic pain of David's mother). As it always is for most war movies.


THE DAWN PATROL (1938)

The British Royal Flying Corps, France, 1915. Slowly cracking up is C.O. Major Brand (Basil Rathbone), who can no longer take the pressure of sending up green pilots with only a few hours of flight time, only to get slaughtered by the Huns. It doesn't help that Captain Courtney (Errol Flynn), the company's best pilot, relentlessly needles the Major over the insanity of these daily suicide missions. To keep his wits, Courtney and his best pal Lieutenant Scott (David Niven) get loaded at the mess bar, and sing jaunty songs about the dead, and laugh as if there's no tomorrow...because there isn't. When the company is taunted by the infamous Baron Von Richter and his Flying Circus, Courtney and Scott disobey Brand's orders and stage a surprise hit on the German air base, decimating it, while barely making it back to base. Brand is ready to bust them, but instead, Wing Command congratulates Brand and promotes him, giving Brand the gleeful pleasure of putting Courtney in Brand's place: now newly-promoted Courtney will be responsible for sending kids to their certain death. And who should happen to show up as replacement pilot? Scott's younger brother Donnie (Morton Lowry). And no...Courtney won't excuse him from duty, even after his best friend Scott begs him to give just two days to train the lad. Sure enough, Donnie buys it, and Scott and Courtney are mortal enemies--which proves problematic when there's a solo suicide mission that has to be undertaken.

Cliched yet entertaining wish-fulfillment, gussied up with A-level performers. A couple of years ago, I reviewed Howard Hawks' 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol, finding it a bit stodgy but overall, nicely serious. True, its anti-war message got lost in the heroics (as it does in most war movies--I'm still convinced that the zero-message, body count-happy Where Eagles Dare is the most "honest" war movie ever made). However, there was a grim stillness to that production, along with that unmistakable Hawksian "profession-as-ethics" spine, that made it resonate. This glossy, patently phony 1938 remake, however, is strictly for the kids who wish they were in that crate with Errol, jauntily throwing a salute and laughing square in Death's face (and who wouldn't want to do that?). Just to be clear: there's absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of comic book fantasy. I remember loving this version of The Dawn Patrol when growing up (a staple of long-gone but never forgotten Bill Kennedy at the Movies, out of Detroit's WKBD TV), where Flynn and Niven were, to me, the epitome of jaunty, unflappable British cool (I know now that Flynn wasn't British...). But then I grew up, and started to see these kinds of movies like The Dawn Patrol for what they really were: Boys Own adventures served up, self-satisfiedly, with mock melodrama and obvious heroics. They're still enjoyable to watch as an adult, particularly in The Dawn Patrol's case for the fine performers here (the principles are letter-perfect, particularly Flynn and Rathbone). However, with the dramatics feeling just as warmed over as all the re-purposed battle footage lifted from the first version...this Dawn Patrol doesn't resonate on any serious level.


SERGEANT YORK

The Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf, 1916. As Europe immolates itself in WWI, hardscrabble hillbilly Alvin York (Gary Cooper) spends his days ploughing rocky, thin hillside farmland, and his nights heading into Kentucky to whoop and hollar and get drunk, a situation that pains his God-fearing, church-going mother (Margaret Wycherly). When Alvin meet sweet, sweet 16-year-old Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), and sees how, um...grown up she is, he decides right there to "set up" with her, as soon as he gets some valuable bottom land in which to profitably farm. Breaking his back to earn the money, which includes winning a near-impossible turkey shoot, Alvin is crushed when the promised land is sold out from under him. Bent on murderous revenge, Alvin, on the way to shoot the land owner, is literally struck by lightning near his mother's church, presided over by Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan). Alvin is a changed man. So when America is finally forced into fighting, Alvin, now a devout pacifist, refuses to enlist, until Pastor Pile assures him he'll get a deferment as a conscientious objector. It doesn't happen, though, and Alvin is drafted, where he's carefully watched, lest he "cause trouble" as a C.O.. Proving to be a dead shot, Alvin's commanding officer offers him a chance to first become a firing range instructor, and when that's refused by Alvin, the chance to go home and think about how America was founded, and its freedoms defended, by men just like Alvin (courtesy of a history book given to Alvin). Back home, Alvin ponders the word of God versus the word of man, and decides he must serve. When he finally makes it to the front line, his decision to fight will result in one of the most remarkable displays of heroism in the annals of the United States Army.

I haven't seen Sergeant York since I wrote about it back in "film school" (yeech), picking it out of all of Hawks' movies simply because I knew it would drive my Commie pinko hippie "film professor" absolutely apesh*t--which it did in spades. The true testament to how successful Hawks was (along with his screenwriters, including John Huston) with Sergeant York is borne out by how unglued people on both sides of the spectrum get when watching it. People who love it and hold it dear as a faith-affirming treatise on "simple country values" and the "rightness" of war (as long as the messy politics aren't actually discussed, nor the after-effects shown) somehow seem to miss Hawks' deliberate satirical and ironic jabs, while naysayers who howl about York's jazzy, jumped-up pro-war propaganda coupled with religious fervor go right past Hawks' (and probably Huston's) sly delight in creating a completely perverse, comical war movie out of a real-life hero's story. Only a movie that's as genuinely twisted as Sergeant York could get those opposing viewers so worked up over such an obviously outrageous, not-to-be-taken-seriously-for-a-moment comic book.

After all...all one has to do is look at Walter Brennan's make-up in the movie's opening scene, with his ridiculously large, coal-black Groucho eyebrows and that shock of white hair right out of Li'l Abner of the Sunday funnies, as he shamefully (and delightfully) mugs and scowls to beat the band, to see that Hawks at least, wasn't taking Sergeant York as seriously as would the movie's eventually defenders and detractors. And that slightly ridiculous, discreetly exaggerated tone of Hawks' continues throughout the movie, as Hawks highlights first Alvin's rowdiness (the cartoony bar fight), then his romantic awakening (flirty, sweaty, sexy Cooper's scenes with the deceptively innocent, woozily-carnal 16-year-old Joan Leslie, full of sly double takes and lingering droll close-ups, show Hawks was shooting a dog patch sex comedy where he wasn't supposed to), Alvin's conversion to hard work and the Lord (he comes off like a cross between a hillbilly Job and Abraham Lincoln after his salvation scene in the church, deliberately staged like bad musical comedy), and finally his triumph on the battle field. That rousing, and frankly hysterical, final sequence in the trenches is proof positive that Hawks, regardless of what other people involved in the project were shooting for in terms of propaganda, was having wicked fun with a historical, horrific moment in a real hero's life--an event that was anything but humorous. When Alvin wets that gun sight and takes out an entire machine gun nest, and then gobbles like a turkey, blasting away to get two more Germans, hilariously bobbing up-and-down, Sergeant York officially crosses over into joyously sick farce, which Hawks amps up even further as Alvin then guns down a row of Germans with lightning speed as we hear Coop marvel on the soundtrack, "Just like a flock of turkeys!" The movie's final surreal, absurdist irony, of course, is the last scene, when pacifist-turned-killer Alvin returns home to find he's been richly rewarded by his state "for what he did 'over there'," a beautiful house laid out on a huge piece of bottom land, all bought and paid for (none of which ever happened to the real York). As Leslie squeals her approval, Cooper does his best innocent blinking shtick (while barely concealing a smile), before he humbly offers, "The Lord does work in mysterious ways." Classic...and clearly a topper for this crazily-satirical war movie.

The Video:
To a movie, the fullscreen, 1.37:1 transfers for the titles in World War I: Centennial Commemorative Collection look terrific, with super-sharp images (all but The Dawn Patrol were recently fully restored), solid blacks (as well as tinted sequences and sepia tones for The Big Parade), little grain, and excellent contrast. Beautiful.

The Audio:
The Big Parades sports a crystal-clear Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo mix. English and French subtitles are available. There are two soundtracks available on Wings: a Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo re-recording of J.S. Zamecnik's original score, with added sound effects, or a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track of Gaylor Carter's old score (which I much prefer). English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included. For The Dawn Patrol, a strong Dolby Digital English mono audio track is available, along with English and Spanish subtitles. And for Sergeant York, A Dolby Digital 2.0 English track is loud, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles available.

The Extras:
For The Big Parade, an informative commentary track from Jeffrey Vance, featuring audio excerpts from King Vidor, is featured, along with a silent short, 1925 Studio Tour, as well as an original trailer. For Wings, a featurette, Grandeur in the Skies, which looks at the movie's production, is included. For The Dawn Patrol, one of the old Warners' Night at the Movies compilation is featured, including a couple of trailers, a newsreel, two short subjects and a funny Looney Tunes: What Price Porky?. And for Sergeant York, a commentary by Jeanine Basinger is available, along with a vintage short, Lions for Sale, and a cartoon, Porky's Preview. A collection of Cooper trailers are included, along with two featurettes: Sergeant York: Of God and Country and Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend, narrated by Clint Eastwood,

Final Thoughts:
A perfect collection for the centennial. 3 of the 4 titles here are genuine classics (and The Dawn Patrol is at least entertaining), while the transfers are pristine, and the extras plentiful. I'm highly, highly recommending World War I: Centennial Commemorative Collection.


Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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